I love autumn. In one way it’s a sad sign of nature slowing the whole show down, but it’s the season with the best light, the most interesting colours, and is also the start of the new academic year. When I was working in the private sector I missed that sense of starting afresh every September/October, the nostalgic and exciting feeling of a new school year as the summer draws to a close. The excitement is, I admit, tinged with a sense of trepidation around the more hectic rhythms and requirements of term time. That trepidation, though, is part adrenalin rush as we step again into the partial unknown of new and updated courses, fresh faces, un-/expected internal and governmental edicts, and so on.
I find the start of the new academic year is also a good time to clarify where I’m going. Reflecting on previous year/-s (like here and here), always highlights room for improvement, and while I’m not interested in thinking about marginal gains, here are the five simple things that I’m hoping will make a difference this year:
- Have a Plan
It might sound like having a meeting to plan the next meeting, but I discovered at the end of last year that I was a little short of direction in my research. I do have a sense of where I’m going and what I’m trying to find out/contribute to knowledge, but I need to make better sense of what it is. This will give me a clearer idea of what to read (and what not to), the kinds of projects that I want to be doing/involved with, and a more cohesive overall purpose (and academic identity). This should be helped by the next few resolutions, as well as improve my career prospects, see number 5!
- Be ruthless.
I’ve written before about the tricky balance between collegiality and being overloaded. I’m going to try a new approach this year where I try much harder to turn work down. This isn’t a blanket policy, as there are some things I’ll have to do, and colleagues/students who need help aren’t going to be left in the lurch. But I’m going to be more discerning (or cautious) about saying yes to additional tasks. Part of this involves trying to prepare all of my teaching materials before the year really starts, something a colleague of mine does. There may be the odd class that’s added as the year goes on, but in the main I know in advance what I’ll be teaching. Getting this done beforehand will free up huge amounts of space for better thinking about – and doing – my teaching, research, and other activities.
- Switch off my email.
Email is a boon as well as a curse. You can be in touch with multiple people quickly, and it serves as a record of past conversations – particularly helpful as a list of things to do, to chase up people you’ve asked for something, or equally to double check when you’re accused of saying/doing (or not saying/doing) something! But at the same time the speed of it means that much more is expected of us, and more quickly. Emails are never urgent, but I’ve tended to have my emails open and pick away at them as they come in. It’s great for people who ask me to do things, but inefficient and distracting for me. I noticed over the summer that I was more productive as email goes much quieter. I’m aiming to only email in bursts at the beginning, middle, and end of the day. If someone needs something quickly, they can call.
- Read the news once a day (only).
A bit like email, the 24-hour news stream has its pros and cons. I got into the habit last year of checking the news on my phone a few times a day, as well as reading ‘the paper’ (i.e. online) in my lunch break. I’m not alone in my slightly pessimistic view of national and global politics right now, and my job as a social scientist doesn’t help – life is pretty shit for a lot of people. But I found that my stress levels while on holiday dropped hugely as I stayed away from the news entirely. I want/need to know what’s going on in the world, both professionally and personally, but I don’t need to be constantly plugged into it. In the same vein, I need to be a bit more organised around my social media interactions – I’ve switched of push notifications on Twitter, and ‘check’ Facebook less.
- Apply for another job.
I’m not unhappy where I am, but I found that applying for a job at another university was, in the words of a friend, ‘like a career MOT’. It provided a useful measure of how far I’ve come since I completed my PhD and started looking for full-time work in earnest. It highlighted a few things (like a the lack of a plan) that I can work on, too. Getting shortlisted shows that I’m in the right kind of place, and not being offered a job is not necessarily down to you. However, the feedback if you are interviewed and don’t get it can give you useful things to work on. If I do get an offer I can’t refuse, then great, but equally I know that the grass isn’t necessarily greener elsewhere. Applications and interviews are a useful way of getting a feel for what the grass is actually like in other places and whether or not someone else might want you to eat it!
I suppose, in a nutshell, the plan for this year is to try and cut out (or down on) the dross and focus much better on the important stuff. I’m still committed to helping my students as much as before and being a valued colleague, but I’m also hoping that I can make more space for myself.